Friday, July 27, 2018

Close Encounters of the Mountain Quail kind

Over the years I have helped many visiting out-of-state birders by giving tips on where to find certain birds on their "target list." I tend to enjoy these email requests to help far-away birders plan their trips. Some help is as easy as saying: "just look up," for abundant and widespread birds. Okay, I was more diplomatic and probably said something like: "easy; widespread in towns." Other replies could include the negative: "Sorry, not present at this time of year" or: "That species is not found here, unless you want to take a 250 mile side trip."

The difficult target birds were the owls--especially those that were found in mountains and were rare and local. One, it would not be good to have lots of birders going to some isolated spot and potentially disturbing a single known nesting pair and their young. But often, a second difficulty was that the owls weren't reliable to any specific spot, just a huge national or state forest. Oh, and nocturnal.

Another difficult request was for locations to see or photograph woodland quail and grouse. One of these is the Mountain Quail, only found in the western United States and northern Baja.

Oh, I could tell them where to go at dawn in spring to hear the loud "Quark!" bounce off the foggy hillsides of the Pacific Northwest or dry canyons of southern California. But to actually see them? Photograph them? You're kidding, right?

I have recorded Mountain Quail over 70 times in 45 years. That's less than twice per year--and I live near them! At least 85% were males crowing in spring--never seen. Most of my actual sightings consist of a startling burst of wings from underfoot as I walked a logging road or trail through a forest opening. I'd be lucky to see enough of the tail/rump coloration as it flew away to make a decision: Ruffed Grouse? Blue (Sooty) Grouse? Mountain Quail? California Quail? Not enough time to even raise my binoculars.

Sometimes a hen would be herding her flightless chicks through the tangles and I might get a glimpse. Or while driving a winding mountain road I might come around a bend to see a quail or 8 scurry off the road into the brush. Rarely could I track down a calling bird and find his concealed perch. He usually saw me first. I understand that some lucky people living in the forest have them visiting their feeders! Total myth. (Okay, maybe true. But I've never seen them that way.)

Photograph? Once. In 2005. A calling bird 200 yards away photographed with a point and shoot camera through my spotting scope. (Terrible picture here on my eBird checklist.)

So imagine my surprise when I rounded a curve on my recent hike at Palomar Mountain State Park and my path was blocked by a Mountain Quail that wouldn't let me pass! Imagine my glee as my camera was ready and I got pretty decent photos of this near-mythological creature!

I heard grating and squealing noises.

Mountain Quail
Mountain Quail
Mountain Quail

But what in the world was this bird doing? My research has provided no clues. Now Ruffed Grouse and Sooty Grouse (and Ring-necked Pheasants) sometimes aggressively protect their territories from human interlopers--even charging and attacking human legs and feet! But I found no such behavior noted for quail. So, I've got three theories.

Theory 1) At the time, I thought that it might be a distraction display. Perhaps it was guarding the trail to allow chicks to cross. Except I never saw any evidence of chicks.

Theory 2) I interrupted a territorial squabble between two males. This certainly makes sense. I thought there was another bird present, but all my photos are of just the one bird.

Theory 3) There was also a towhee and perhaps a scrub-jay involved. New crazy theory based on an encounter of mine a few days later: What if all these birds were upset at a rattlesnake? The quail was whining. Perhaps the grating I heard was the rattle of a rattlesnake? Seems unlikely, but maybe?

Mountain Quail
Mountain Quail. Palomar Mountain, California. June 17, 2018.
Whatever the cause, I'm glad I got this prolonged close views and photos.

Eventually, it walked into the brush, and circled around behind me.

Mountain Quail
Mountain Quail

Then it crossed the trail again and took up a station to keep an eye on me. On my return, 20 minutes later, all was quiet.

Mountain Quail

All these photos seem to be of the same bird. Was there only one? I'll never know. But it was an interesting and curious encounter. At least I haven't been making any mashed potato sculptures.

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